Call#: Van Pelt Library E184.O6 P26 1999
Palumbo-Liu argues, in the chapter entitled “Rescripting the Imaginary,” that Bitter Tea failed to be profitable or popular for reasons more complex than simply the inclusion of the controversial theme of interracial love. Palumbo-Liu holds that the film’s problems were much more directly tied into the structure of the story itself. He carefully deconstructs significant scenes and characters from the movie to demonstrate that the film’s lack of success can be attributed to its inability “to establish a stable identificatory position.” In other words, Capra confused audiences by creating too many intertwined narrative points, without laying a foundation of convention by which to ground the plot. Palumbo-Liu notes that audiences of the 1930s were fascinated by the idea of a “liaison” between East and West. The 30s were a time of growing awareness of China’s role as a nation, what with the Open Door policy of the late 19th century, the Northern Expedition in the1920’s, and the build up to the 1937 Sino-Japanese war. Audiences were looking for films that would decisively articulate a satisfying “progressive” statement about reconciling the tensions between Asia and America, but Capra provided no such message in Bitter Tea.
Looking at the film in this light, it is clear how Bitter Tea might have been considered unsatisfying by audiences of the time. Though the film seems to offer a moralistic critique through its contentious subject matter, it is unclear exactly what kind of statement Capra is attempting to make. In the film, the difference between racial and national identity becomes blurred and confused, a critical assessment of Western imperialism raises complicated moral questions that muddy the simple trajectory of the love story trope, and the characters themselves seem to subvert their expected roles. These complicating factors could potentially create a more intricately conceived story, but Capra never develops any one narrative point well enough for it to be effective. All of these reasons may have prevented Bitter Tea from meeting the criteria of either a popular box-office melodrama or a politically-charged “arty” film.
Call#: Van Pelt Library PN1998.3.C36 A3 2004
This book compiles the various interviews Frank Capra gave during the years spanning his long career in Hollywood. In one late interview, given in 1978, Capra speaks about his unique artistic vision, specifically focusing on how he views his role as a filmmaker in relationship to his audience. In response to a question about the lack of success of Bitter Tea relative to his other films, Capra explains that the film was “ahead of its time”, and that he believes it would be better appreciated in the 70s both for its thematic content and its stylistic qualities because contemporary audiences have been “conditioned” to accept such material. He also expounds on the inspiration for Bitter Tea, which demonstrates a marked departure in motive from Capra’s earlier comedy-dramas. Capra explains that these differences reflected a desire on his part to be taken seriously as a director and be nominated for an academy award. He explained that he had believed the Motion Picture Academy only ever voted for “arty crap,” and so he chose Bitter Tea, originally a novel written by Grace Zaring Stone, precisely because he thought the controversial subject material would legitimize the film as more worthy of a nomination.
This interview provides significant insight into Bitter Tea for several reasons. First of all, it demonstrates that the film intentionally and self-consciously deviated from the types of films that popularized Capra’s directorial work to begin with. The controversy at the heart of the film, rather than being antithetical to Hollywood style, was actually an intentional means of sensationalizing and authenticating the film as more serious or “arty.” Capra also alludes to the visual elements of Bitter Tea that are unlike those in any of the other films. The “otherworldly” gauzy sheen of the film is an effect Capra created by putting a silk stocking over the lens of the camera. Capra admits to being derisive of elaborate or stylized camera shooting or cinematography, but that he felt impelled to create a more artistic sheen to this film because of its subject matter. Capra’s inauthentic attempt at creating a film according to artistic criteria that were not his own may have contributed to Bitter Tea’s lack of success.
tagged capra hollywood the_bitter_tea_of_general_yen by zok ...on 01-DEC-08
Call#: Van Pelt Library PN1995.9.M57 C38 2005
Susan Courtney’s third chapter, “Coming to Terms with the Production Code," examines how miscegenation was regarded by censors during the pre-code years and attempts to trace the exact origins of the “miscegenation clause” included in the Production Code of 1930. Courtney notes that the clause’s exact wording -- “Miscegenation (sex relationships between white and black races) is forbidden” – originally appeared in the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” of 1927, and remained relatively un-amended until the code as a whole was gradually abandoned in the 1950s. Courtney posits that there was no single source that led to the inclusion of the miscegenation clause (in other words, there was no specific individual or demographic that found miscegenation particularly objectionable); rather, the clause emerged out of consultations conducted by the Hays Office with local or state censor boards across the country, suggesting a more widespread cultural aversion to the inclusion of interracial mixing in film.
In regards to Bitter Tea, this book supplies a significant contextual understanding of how the interracial themes pivotal to the film’s plot would have been received by censors and audiences alike. Courtney notes that the actual enforcement of the miscegenation clause was very unclear, explaining how a film like Bitter Tea could have easily passed muster with American censors. Because the miscegenation clause only makes mention of “blacks and whites," films involving Asian-American interactions were to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Several movies, including “Congai” and “Shanghai Gesture", were never produced because of the inclusion of Asian-American miscegenation, whereas other films seemed to be judged according to a qualified version of the clause that would permit such relations so long as their interactions were limited to “fantasies and identities."
Santaolalla, Isabel C. "East is East, and West is West? Otherness in Capra's The Bitter Tea of General Yen." Literature Film Quarterly, 1998.
Santaolalla’s article provides a more symbolic framework for Bitter Tea, suggesting that the story is an allegory for Megan’s descent into an unconscious realm of anarchical desire that she has repressed because of her submission to a strict set of patriarchal Judeo-Christian beliefs. This, Santaolalla’s postulates, is indicated by the theme of dreaming and fantasy, which is recurrent throughout the movie. The second half of the movie takes place in Yen’s summer garden house, which is sequestered way from the outside world, symbolizing a return to a primal, edenic state separate from “reality.” After Megan’s kidnapping into Yen’s world, Shanghai papers announce that she has died. Santaolalla suggests that this alludes to a symbolic death and transformation of Megan's character. Yen forces her to reconsider her role as a woman, as a Westerner and as a Christian missionary, all key elements that are central to her sense of identity. In the end, Megan decides she wants to willingly “give herself” to Yen, so she removes her puritanical garments in place for Yen’s concubine’s sensual and decadent jewels and clothing. In this literal sense, she undergoes a transformation.
This approach to Biter Tea is significant because it delves beyond a superficial understanding of the film as a mere melodrama, and attempts to track the development of the narrative on a psychological level. What is particularly curious about this reading is that, though Megan does undergo a transformation of sorts, the conversion of her character is never carried out satisfactorily. She never truly “gives herself” to Yen, because he kills himself so that their love can never be consummated, thus abruptly diminishing what the movie had been building up to from the very beginning. Perhaps this unsatisfying narrative accounts for the movie's failure to attract audiences.
Benshoff, Harry M and Griffin, Sean. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
In chapter six of America on Film, Benshoff and Griffin provide commentary on the representation of Asians in Hollywood films during the silent film era and the “classical” 1930s Hollywood films. The chapter suggests that immigration legislation, like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924, were indicative of pervasive Western prejudices and fears that were then perpetuated in popular film. Asians in movies were almost never represented as Asian-Americans but rather, as exoticized “orientals” living in exaggeratedly aestheticized foreign landscapes. Also, the roles of Asians in most films were filled by Western actors in “yellowface,” as was the case with General Yen’s character in Bitter Tea. The chapter also discusses at length two well-known Asian characters of early film history – Charlie Chan and Fu Man Chu. Both are characters of detective-genre film played by white actors, and both embody what is known as the “inscrutable Oriental” stereotype. Charlie Chan is akin to the classical Holmesian detective, but is more comical and often spews “old Chinese wisdom.” Fu Man Chu, similar to Chan in many regards, is an evil genius who exacts obscure and ghastly forms of “Chinese” torture on his unfortunate victims.
This chapter provided contextual information that is important to understanding the kinds of preconceptions viewers of the 1930s might have had about Chinese, or more generally Asian, culture. Was General Yen a character unique to film at the time of Bitter Tea’s release? He’s seems not to have been. In fact, his character fairly well suits the “inscrutable Oriental” stereotype discussed by Benshoff and Griffin, in that he is both shrewdly perceptive and intelligent, and at the same time, subtly menacing (as demonstrated by his brutally pragmatic indifference about executing his prisoners during times of economic crisis and famine). Yen, like Chan, says several cryptic “fortune-cookie” type maxims throughout the film. Even Mah-Li’s character, the wily concubine, seems to fit the description of another stereotyped character mentioned in the chapter called the Dragon Lady, a seductive and treacherous female spy who fools men with her sexual wiles.
Call#: Van Pelt Library PN1998.A3 C268
Willis’s account of Bitter Tea, “Adaptation East and West," is partially a review and partially an analysis. Part of the critique is a comparison between Capra’s cinematic rendering of the plot and the original narrative found in Grace Zaring Stone’s novel of the same name. He notes how the novel, unlike the movie, was more principally a psychic journey into Megan Davis’ development as a character who “rejects the easy options in life” and seeks something that is personally meaningful enough to be worth fighting for. The Megan Davis of the movie, Willis says, is two-dimensional and so “bland and uncorrupt she seems to come from another planet” (90). Willis argues that this corruption of the characters – not just Megan’s, but Yen’s, and many of the minor characters as well – resulted in a movie that made no logical sense, because the players of the story were never developed enough to be clear in their motives. Other major changes from the original source include the fact that the Yen of the novel never kills himself and is, in the text, much less of an attractive figure (there are no romantic dream sequences as there are in the movie).
Willis’s analysis of Bitter Tea is important because it asks the question: why change the plot of a successful, best-selling novel? The alterations Capra made do not seem to have served the purpose of facilitating the transition of the narrative from text to screen. Perhaps Capra felt the novel’s stronger and more negative examination of the hypocrisy of Christian missionary work in China was too controversial for Hollywood, and didn’t adapt as easily into the more accessible format of a love story. This, in turn, raises the interesting point of why controversy in books is considered generally more acceptable than controversy on the screen. Did the changes Capra make to Bitter Tea cheapen the integrity of the story? Would the movie have proved more of a success if he had executed a more direct adaptation of Stone’s novel, as Willis seems to suggest? Or does the movie have its own redeemable qualities that were simply not appreciated at the time of its release?
Call#: Penn Library Web -
In chapter three, “The Threat of Captivity,” Marchetti defines a particular narrative pattern, called the “captivity narrative," that recurs throughout the myths and stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The captivity narrative is a literary tool by which groups of people are able to concretize a sense of collective identity, clearly delineated from the forbidding strangeness of other “foreign” cultures. In the classic captivity narrative, a pure and naïve woman is taken captive by an alien, and oftentimes inferior, culture. There is often the threat of rape or death, and ultimately, the story ends in either sacrifice or salvation. These recurring literary patterns, Marchetti argues, are easily identified in modern Hollywood movies as well.
The “captivity narrative” certainly applies to Bitter Tea in many obvious ways. Megan Davis’s character, engaged to a Christian missionary, fits the ingénue prototype perfectly, and Yen, the ruthless Chinese general who holds her against her will, clearly personifies a kind of threatening barbarism. However, Bitter Tea plays out in a way that subverts the basic framework of the captivity narrative. In one scene of the movie, Megan dreams about a demonic and exaggeratedly “orientalized” Yen looming over her. A valiant masked man, who is revealed to be Yen as well, rescues Megan from her aggressor. In a fit of passion, she kisses her rescuer. This seems to indicate that, though Yen embodies the role of a demonized “other”, he is also able to provide some kind of salvation for Megan, which she finds seductively attractive. In this sense, their roles are reversed. Megan, the missionary, who is meant to redeem the barbaric Yen, becomes the redeemed rather than the redeemer. As a function of being the foreign foil to Megan, Yen is able to liberate her from the racism and prejudiced denials of pleasure inherent in her religious beliefs. Though the story ultimately rejects the racism associated with the traditional captivity narrative, it is understandable why Chinese censors may have misinterpreted the intent of the film as one aimed to offend.
Call#: Van Pelt Library PN1995.62 .D65 1999
In Pre-Code Hollywood, Doherty reviews the production of film during the years preceding the rigorous enforcement of the Production Code in the 1930s. Chapter ten focuses specifically on the portrayal of foreign or racial minorities, specifically with regard to those topics that relate to the touchy subject of racial mixing, or miscegenation. In one particularly relevant subsection of the chapter, Doherty analyzes pre-Code Orientalism in film, and the exotic allure surrounding the mysterious “otherness” of countries like China. The chapter also gives a detailed account of the way the film was received by internal censors at the Studio Relations Committee, a branch of the MPPDA. Interestingly, censors were less preoccupied with the suggestion of inter-racial romance than they were with the seemingly negative portrayal of Chinese culture in Capra’s film. Ultimately, however, censors actually supported the film’s alleged purpose. Doherty appends to the chapter a letter written by John Wilson (of the SRC) to Will Hays (head of the MPPDA) in defense of the film’s seemingly racist elements, in which Wilson assures Hays that “the whole purpose of the story is the convincing refutation of the foreign opinion of the Chinese characters, and for that reason it is essential that the seeming derogatory remarks be used in the first part of the story.”
This chapter sheds light on the political climate of film-production around the time that Capra was making Bitter Tea. It was interesting to learn that Capra’s film was one of many films of the 1930’s that demonstrate a Western ambivalence towards Eastern culture, such as The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and The Hatchet Man (1932). These mixed feelings about the East are indeed mirrored by the simultaneous attraction and repulsion experienced by the white missionary character, Megan Davis, towards the attractive and mysterious General Yen. Because of a precedence for this theme in films, it seems unlikely that Bitter Tea’s lack of success was wholly a result of audiences being unexposed to depictions of Eastern cultures in movies, unless the film somehow deviated in a significant way from these other orientalist films.